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Static Electricity cause of Missouri refueling fire
Man refilling portable containers that rested in truck's bed

Click here to see refueling fire video
( 4.41 MB file)

Jim Pharr
June 11, 2004

St. Joseph, MO-- Around 5 PM on Tuesday, April 27, 2004 Mr. Robert Murphy drove his 1996 Chevrolet pick-up truck into Nik & Kati's Conoco at 3510 Pear Street in St. Joseph, Missouri. After Pumping a little more than 20 gallons of regular grade gasoline into the truck's tank, Murphy then began filling four portable containers that rested in the truck's bed that was equipped with a plastic bed liner.

Mr. Murphy said that he started filling the portable fuel containers, 2 made of metal and two of plastic, just as he had for many years, leaving them inside the truck's bed. After the first five gallon container was filled, Murphy began to fill the second metal container with gas, reaching between 1/2 and 2/3 full when flames erupted. Murphy believed he had the nozzle lever fully opened or nearly fully open.

Murphy's reaction to the blaze was to withdraw the filling hose. He then turned his attention to the fire burning in his truck's bed. Believing the best action would be to remove the burning fuel container, Mr. Murphy slid the flaming container toward the rear of the truck, then lowered the tailgate. As the metal container was pulled toward the rear, it evidently became caught on the tailgate and tipped over. Gasoline then spilled and burned fiercely. While flames engulfed the truck's left side and bed, Mr. Murphy was able to escape without injury.

St Joseph fire fighters stationed across the street observed the fire develop and immediately responded, arriving and extinguishing flames in just over 2 minutes from the fire's start. The Chevrolet pick-up truck received extensive damage and the dispenser being used was scorched to the point of requiring repair. Amazingly this incident was captured on security video. Please watch this frightening episode before deciding to refill containers in your vehicle.

St. Joseph Fire Department Inspector Randy DeShon attributes the fire's ignition to static electrical discharge. DeShon indicated that static charge was generated by gasoline flowing through the nozzle and pipes.

A Husky nozzle was attached to a Gibarco dispenser according to Inspector DeShon. Records from the National Weather Service indicate humidity was approximately 53% when this incident occurred.

In retrospect, Murphy realizes the dangers associated with gasoline. Murphy said that he now understands the need to remove portable fuel containers from vehicles, and to assure that the containers are placed on pavement before filling them with gasoline. Mr. Murphy said that he later observed warning signs on the fuel island's support post and smaller warnings on the dispenser's display.

St. Joseph Fire Department issued the following recommendations regarding pumping gasoline:

Portable fuel containers have been claimed as one of the leading causes of static- caused fires.

Gasoline fumes are volatile! Static electricity can create a spark that could cause a fire if it's near gasoline fumes.

Every time you pump gasoline, a charge of electricity builds up on gasoline as it flows through a pipe or hose and this charge takes several seconds to several minutes to dissipate after the gasoline has reached the tank or container.

Do you know how to fill your vehicle or a portable fuel container safely?

1. Turn off your ignition.
2. Do not smoke while fueling.
3. Touch a metal body part of the vehicle before removing the gas cap.
4. Do not re-enter your vehicle while fueling.
5. If you do re-enter, touch a metal a metal part of the vehicle once you are out of the vehicle.
6. Keep the nozzle in contact with the fill neck at all times while fueling.
7. Remove portable containers from the vehicle and place them on the ground a safe distance from the vehicle while filling them.
8. Keep nozzle in contact with the container until finished fueling.
9. Placing a portable fuel container on the ground makes it easier for the electrical charge to escape!